Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday accused the United States of meddling in internal FIFA affairs after Swiss authorities arrested several officials of world soccer's governing body in Zurich on Wednesday.
The U.S. Department of Justice indicted nine current and former FIFA officials and five others on Wednesday with 46 criminal counts ranging from racketeering and wire fraud to money-laundering and unlawful procurement of naturalization. Swiss officials also announced an investigation into allegations of corruption involving several past and future soccer tournaments, including the 2018 and 2022 World Cup events, scheduled to be held in Russia and Qatar respectively.
“Unfortunately our American partners are using these methods in order to achieve their own selfish gains and it is illegal to persecute people. I would not rule out that in regards to FIFA, the same thing could be happening, though I do not know how it will end,” Putin said, according to RT.
“However, the fact that this is happening right on the eve of the FIFA presidential elections, gives one this exact impression,” he added, referring to the upcoming election in which President Sepp Blatter is set to seek re-election for a fifth term as head of FIFA. Other Moscow officials also accused Washington of conspiring against the world soccer authority.
“So there are clearly forces in America that are trying to turn anything positive that we have into a new channel of confrontation,” Russia's National Anti-Corruption Committee Chairman Kirill Kabanov told TIME on Wednesday.
On Tuesday, it was revealed that a group of 13 U.S. Senators had also sent a letter to Blatter asking him to move the 2018 World Cup to another country, prompting Kabanov to ask: “And even if there was bribery going on, why would the Americans only bring it up now, just after FIFA refused the demands of Senators to revoke Russia’s right to host the champions?”
FIFA is being investigated, among other things, for its decision to award the next two World Cup tournaments to Russia and Qatar, a decision that has prompted an international outcry over the countries' political actions and human rights records.
British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond also warned on Thursday that the international body needed major reform. "There is something deeply wrong at the heart of FIFA and international football needs to reform, needs to get its act together," Hammond told the BBC. Britain had placed a failed bid to host the 2018 World Cup.
Meanwhile, FIFA began its annual congress in Zurich on Thursday despite warnings from sponsors that the corruption scandal may endanger its funding. Visa, a major sponsor, has said it will reassess its sponsorship unless FIFA institutes reforms. Coca-Cola and Adidas have also expressed concern over the allegations of corruption.
Blatter, who has not yet appeared in public since Wednesday’s arrests, will run for re-election in a Friday vote. The 79-year-old Swiss who has led FIFA since 1998, has long been suspected by the sport's watchers of being involved in shady practices. However, while the Union of European Football Associations called for the FIFA election to be delayed, the Asian Football Confederation opposed the move and said that it would support Blatter's re-election bid.
Michel Platini, a former French soccer player and head of the UEFA, asked Blatter to step down on Thursday morning, according to a BBC reporter. Blatter reportedly refused to do so.